The Buck Clayton Legacy Band serve up superior swing at Phyllis Court Club, Henley

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Buck Clayton’s legacy was a box. Packed, it turns out, with music, and bequeathed to bandleader Alyn Shipton in appreciation for his help in publishing the great man’s autobiography. So what better idea than to bring this minor tsunami of largely unpublished or new material to life? To think out of the box, you might say. This in a nutshell explains the band’s title and, more to the point, its performing raison d’etre.

Trumpeter Clayton made his post-Basie mark with his legendary recorded jam sessions and with his all-star touring groups, and Shipton has followed his template in putting together a mini big band with a pair of trumpets, two saxophones, alto and tenor, and a trombone to anchor the frontline, with a rhythm trio. Clayton wrote with swing in mind, each chart carefully tailored, themes neatly resolved or backed with supportive riffs, the focus on ensemble cohesion and pleasing outcomes. There’s no grunt and grind here, more a case of a light touch and a flair for a decent tune. All of which demands the kind of players who can slip into mainstream mode, find solo ideas that reflect the tune’s shape and direction and, happily for this private club audience, that’s just what Shipton and company delivered.

‘All The Cats Join In’, from a Clayton jam session recording, sets the scene: swing personified, good lines, and the kind of pleasing drive that allowed soloists like Alan Barnes, pianist Martin Litton and Dutch cornetist Menno Daams to find their feet. ‘Claytonia’ had the kind of ingratiatingly louche groove that always appeals, with Robert Fowler’s beefy tenor at its core, Litton in bluesy mode. ‘Party Time’ was perky, again with Fowler and Litton foregrounded. ‘Outer Drive’ was always a Clayton band favourite, here given the kind of righteous seeing-to that Buck would have approved of, the concert’s first half suitably highlighted by the BCLB’s version of ‘The Kid from Red Bank’ derived from Neal Hefti’s Atomic Basie arrangement with Litton taking the honours, his solo a cheery fusion of stride and down-home swing, all cleverly done and hugely rewarding. Then came ’The Jeep Is Jumping’ from the Hodges songbook, a cross-over into Ellington country to which they returned several times in the second half, this vital standby given a jubilant reading with trombonist Adrian Fry robust and to the point.

As is so often the way, the playing felt fresher and the band’s energy levels soared in the second half, with drummer Bobby Worth and bassist Shipton anchoring a version of ‘Blue Lou’ that had all the right attributes, Barnes expressive and Daams impressing with his spacious, Hackett-like phrasing. More Clayton pieces followed, ‘The Bowery Bunch’, cleverly voiced, the riffs again propelling Fry and Daams to good things, ‘Three and Six’ gave Barnes a chance to show his soulful side before another Hodges piece, the quaintly titled ‘Sweet as Bear Meat’, with Fry’s wah-wah trombone, riffs piling in, trumpeter Ian Smith leading the way. And if that wasn’t enough, they finished with Buck’s tribute to his old sparring partner Humphrey Lyttelton, a bandleader who certainly espoused the Clayton cause, with ’Sir Humphrey’, Worth in swing paradise, the band hitting their marks with maximum drive and creative zest.

Once upon a time, this kind of Basie-styled small group jazz was all the rage and then… well, it wasn’t. Happily, and in the right hands, as here, it lives again – as does the music of Clayton himself. 

– Peter Vacher